The most remote and exotic phrase of my growing up years was “The Gulf of Tonkin.” It was also a little scary. I grew up during the Cold War and during the Vietnam “Conflict.” The way Huntley and Brinkley said, “Gulf of Tonkin” was enough to send chills up anyone’s spine. But…
There I was. I’ve always studied geography on a “need to know basis,” when place names and boundaries had some kind of context for me, so there I was, looking at a map and seeing that very soon I’d be near the Gulf of Tonkin on my way to Hainan Island for Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year at my friend’s ancestral village, Fu Family Village, All Beauty.
To get there, we took a ship down the Pearl River, through the estuary at the mouth leading into the South China Sea.
Permission to visit Hainan was hard to get, but because we were going with close friends who’d invited us and I could speak Mandarin, the provincial government gave us the OK. Because we were traveling with Chinese and had Chinese ID cards, we were ipso facto Chinese. We bunked in the bottom of the boat with the other Chinese passengers. A foreign expert in French — from Switzerland — was traveling in one of the upper deck cabins as a foreigner. It was a hard night, with a neon light shining in my face on the upper bunk, but so what? It was a real adventure.
The Old Mother, with whom we traveled, was criticized by some other passengers for traveling with foreigners. She just replied that we weren’t foreigners. Jim was her son and we’d just been studying in America for a long time. It was her way of saying, “Shut up,” but it also made the point that we were her family. ❤ In China, you don’t mess with a person’s family.
The ship crossed the South China Sea overnight and when the next afternoon came we were in Hainan’s major city of Haikou — Sea Mouth. It was a bustling, dirty, confused and confusing city with the most filthy toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. “What can you do with countryside people?” said my friend, Zhu.
Travel in rural China in those days was nothing like it is now. It was a system of pre-arranged hitchhiking and luck. I had not understood the numerous cartons of cigarettes and cans of pineapple that we traveled with, but as soon as we started our journey, I understood. Guangxi, payment/bribes.
The first night we were supposed to stay with friends of my friends, but they had consulted the I-Ching and it had told them that entertaining strangers at this time “would not further” so they turned us away, with ferocity, apologies and the banging of a drum. We’d hitched (paying for our rides with cigarettes) a few miles out of Haikou.
“Superstition. I’m sorry Jim and Martha,” said our friends. I was bewildered. It took some study once I had returned to the US to understand what had happened. My friend had another possible sleeping place in mind and we went to the house of her old high school teacher. “Sure,” she said. It happened the dormitories — faculty dormitories — were largely empty, too, so we bunked up in some unknown teacher’s room.
That’s when my difficulties began.
I was seasick.
Seasickness happens to some people when they’re in motion. Mine hit me when the ship had docked. I learned later — when we’d arrived at our destination, a village of fishermen — that my nausea and vertigo, constant “companions” when I was on Hainan — were common. They joked, “You need to get on another boat!” I was sick the whole week I was on Hainan but, thanks to my great doctor in Denver (who’d removed my appendix the preceding July) I had anti-nausea suppositories.
I could write an entire post on toilets in China and seven-eighths of that would be toilets on Hainan. It’s enough to say that we went back in time from late 20th century Chinese toilets (Guangzhou). Our first night in Hainan, at the high school outside of Haikou, we had the toilet equivalent of Roman times. From there we descended to early human history in the village of All Beauty. And now, I will do as my grandfather and “draw a veil of silence” over the subject.
The next day we were back on the road. We stood beside the “highway” with our stash of cigarettes and canned goods and waited for a van that was supposed to pick us up. The van came, we got in and had a ride to our first destination, the town of Wenchang. There we would (hopefully) get a ride to the village of All Beauty. But no one was certain about that.
Today Wenchang is a city, and it is also the location from which the Chinese have launched rockets carrying satellites. In 1983, my friends and I stood beside the main road with our luggage and our guangxi, hoping for a ride to the next place. After a while, I understood that the rides came through a system I dubbed “the brother-in-law” system. A person gave us a ride and told a family member about our needing another ride. There were no phones. There was no form of communication except direct speech between classmates and family members, something like, “Foreigners with cigarettes and pineapple will be waiting beside the main road outside Wenchang. They need a ride to All Beauty. They have permission so it’s all-right.”
Hainan was an American outpost during the Anti-Japanese war, but it was very rare for any Hainanese to see white people. Most of the foreigners in their experience had been Asian. There we were, my tall, bearded, blue-eyed husband and me, reddish brown hair and green eyes, with our two young Chinese friends and the indomitable Old Mother. We were an attraction.
Old women came up to us and looked us. Some tried to rub the freckles from my arms with spit and pressure. Others stared into my green eyes. Others touched Jim’s beard. My friends were embarrassed and angered by this, but it was OK with me. I was in China. I felt all the curiosity these villagers were displaying. My friend Zhu yelled at them to go away, but I said, “It’s OK. I don’t mind.”
“You should mind,” she said. “They’re ignorant, superstitious people.”
“Yeah but they’ll be less ignorant when they finish examining us,” I thought. I understood by then that, for some people, our very humanity was suspect. This was beyond curiosity. This was international relations.
Then came one of the most profoundly beautiful moments of my time in China, of my life. A young man — maybe 18 — came up to us. His face was shaking in nervousness. He gently made his way through the crowd of black-clad grandmothers. He looked at Jim then looked at me.
“Are you Americans?” he asked in English.
Everyone in the crowd looked at him in total surprise.
“Yes,” I said.
He looked at me in joyful astonishment. His nervousness vanished. He smiled. His eyes sparkled.
“Where did you learn English?” I asked.
“I listen to Voice of America. Welcome to my country!” he took my hand and shook it, then Jim’s hand before he turned and walked away, a spring in his step. I am sure he had never tried out his English before and was thrilled to learn that it actually WORKED.
To be continued…